Sunday, November 30, 2008

The McCaffrey Story: Barstow, You Haven't Got It.

Robert Weiner, the public relations man who works for NBC analyst and retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, has already put out a detailed rebuttal to David Barstow's 5,174-word front-page look this morning at McCaffrey and the "deeply opaque" world of a war hero-turned-military analyst.

But the rebuttal doesn't mention what's truly wrong with Barstow's epic story: the fact that it's missing the proverbial "smoking gun" that would have justified the reporter's accumulation of detail. Instead of publishing an examination of McCaffrey that might have exposed some fundamental hypocrisy, Barstow's back-and-forth on the retired general's military connections ended up proving nothing except that the man earns some of his living as an advocate for a would-be defense department contractors, and some from work for a private equity firm with close ties to the military-industrial complex -- facts the general doesn't dispute.

And as to the story's most significant element -- that those business connections influenced McCaffrey's positions about the war in a manner that would define a conflict of interest -- there's no proof. How can there be? It's impossible to say for certain that McCaffrey would go so far as to push a military conflict, and the potential human casualties that could follow, simply for the opportunity to make a buck. And yet without such proof, there's no real story.

It would have been great for Barstow to have nailed McCaffrey; his war misconduct has already been the topic of tough reporting by The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, and the Times's Michael Gordon and Gernard Trainor. The idea of McCaffrey sounding off on military topics must rankle reporters who object to NBC's use of him as a commentator who commands respect by his association with a major news organization. That's what makes Barstow's failure today so frustrating.

This morning's story follows a lengthy and valuable look last April by Barstow into the Pentagon's efforts to influence the opinions of military analysts who offer commentary for the television networks. What made that story work was Barstow's definitive reporting; he backed up his revelations about the Pentagon's secret efforts with significant detail and documentation.

But even that story -- and today's followup -- didn't successfully tag the analysts themselves on the conflict of interest issue. Barstow's original piece worked to connect the commentaries with the Pentagon's propaganda machine, but failed; that weakness in Barstow's reporting was exposed, in detail, by media reporter Rachel Sklar on the Huffington Post a few days later.

The flaws in today's piece stem from the same failure on Barstow's part -- and ought to remind readers of that terrific turn in William Goldman's screenplay of "All The President's Men," when Ben Bradlee kills a Woodward and Bernstein scoop for its failure to deliver the goods:

You haven't got it.
(before they can reply)
A librarian and a secretary say Hunt looked at a book.
(shakes his head)
Not good enough.

Every newspaper editor in America ought to commit those lines to memory, and repeat them to reporters when relevant. Today, it was relevant; Barstow had something, but it wasn't a scoop. Just read his thesis closely and you'll see how little actual news he has to report this morning:

Many retired officers hold a perch in the world of military contracting, but General McCaffrey is among a select few who also command platforms in the news media and as government advisers on military matters. These overlapping roles offer them an array of opportunities to advance policy goals as well as business objectives. But with their business ties left undisclosed, it can be difficult for policy makers and the public to fully understand their interests.

On NBC and in other public forums, General McCaffrey has consistently advocated wartime policies and spending priorities that are in line with his corporate interests. But those interests are not described to NBC’s viewers. He is held out as a dispassionate expert, not someone who helps companies win contracts related to the wars he discusses on television.

But what are those corporate interests Barstow so breathlessly mentions? Just because his business interests align with his beliefs doesn't make him guilty of anything. Barstow suggests that McCaffrey's views are for sale, but never proves it -- and never makes clear how more disclosure of his business dealings to NBC viewers would enhance their understanding of his views. Either NBC believes he's a legitimate commentator -- which, as of now, it appears to -- or they should let him go. Right now, it's one news organization wagging its finger at another.

Meanwhile, McCaffrey's own consulting company openly promotes what he calls "linkages" between the government and contractors. Those linkages lead to deals like one he made with Defense Solutions, a small contractor that hoped McCaffrey could deliver them a deal to make armored vehicles for Iraq. It turns out he couldn't -- but Barstow nevertheless suggests that the general's generous television comments about Gen. David Patraeus, who led the Iraq War effort, may have been an effort to woo his support for a Defense Solutions deal.

Barstow doesn't allow for the more obvious, legitimate explanation -- that McCaffrey, who publicly attacked Iraq military strategists including former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, may share the widespread positive view of Gen. Petraeus held by most military analysts who've studiedv the war effort. The article sees all of McCaffrey's statements and opinions as generated solely to ensure maximum income for himself, and thus a conflict of interest.

A more damning example comes far later in Barstow's account, when he documents McCaffrey's involvement with a business deal that depended on the American military's continued presence in Iraq -- and his television statements in support of that presence. Still, no smoking gun.

In any case, does anyone who listens to McCaffrey on NBC consider him objective? Don't television viewers assume that a former military general comes to the topic of war with an automatic conflict of interest, the way a former professional baseball player who provides color commentary might be inclined to see the steroids scandal differently than a professional sports reporter? Barstow's thesis denies the obvious intelligence of those who consume McCaffrey's commentaries, and who realize that former generals are likely to be biased in favor of military operations.

Indeed, what's surprising about McCaffrey is that he hasn't hesitated to criticize American military strategy in Iraq, despite that obvious built-in bias.

What would have made Barstow's story impervious to criticism? Well, maybe if the reporter had shown that McCaffrey had intentionally covered up his connections to contractors in working with NBC News, where he exclusively offers his opinion. But in an interview with Barstow, NBC News chief Steve Capus makes clear that McCaffrey has disclosed all his dealings with private industry, and that no conflict exists:

The president of NBC News, Steve Capus, said in an interview that General McCaffrey was a man of honor and achievement who would never let business obligations color his analysis for NBC. He described General McCaffrey as an “independent voice” who had courageously challenged Mr. Rumsfeld, adding, “There’s no open microphone that begins with the Pentagon and ends with him going out over our airwaves.”

General McCaffrey is not required to abide by NBC’s formal conflict-of-interest rules, Mr. Capus said, because he is a consultant, not a news employee. Nor is he required to disclose his business interests periodically. But Mr. Capus said that the network had conversations with its military analysts about the need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, and that General McCaffrey had been “incredibly forthcoming” about his ties to military contractors.

Again, only much later in Barstow's story do we learn that McCaffrey failed to disclose his specific connections to some business dealings to his NBC superiors. But clearly, NBC's Capus -- a journalist of impeccable credentials himself -- doesn't see a conflict of interest between McCaffrey's relationship with Veritas Capital, and his contract with NBC.

Another potential smoking gun might have been if Barstow had been able to show that McCaffrey had traded his opinions for a business deal. But it's clear, from his hedging, that no such connection could be found; instead, Barstow was forced to rely on the government's continuing (and yet-to-be resolved) investigation into his previous scoop as a justification for today's story. Here's the best Barstow could do to sell his McCaffrey reporting as worthwhile:

In an article earlier this year, The New York Times identified General McCaffrey as one of some 75 military analysts who were the focus of a Pentagon public relations campaign that is now being examined by the Pentagon’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office and the Federal Communications Commission. The campaign, begun in 2002 but suspended after the article’s publication, sought to transform the analysts into “surrogates” and “message force multipliers” for the Bush administration, records show. The analysts, many with military industry ties, were wooed in private briefings, showered with talking points and escorted on tours of Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The Pentagon inspector general is investigating whether special access gave any of these analysts an improper edge in the competition for contracts.

General McCaffrey offers a case study of the benefits that can flow from favored access: an inside track to sensitive information about strategy and tactics; insight into the priorities of ground commanders; a private channel to officials who oversaw war spending, as the Defense Solutions example shows. In that case the company has yet to win the contract it hired General McCaffrey to champion.

More broadly, though, his example reveals the myriad and often undisclosed connections between the business of war and the business of covering it.

Myriad and undisclosed? Covering the war? McCaffrey doesn't "cover" the war for anyone; he comments on it. As for "myriad," the Barstow story gives only a few examples of McCaffrey's business dealings, hardly "myriad" by any measure.

As for the "case study" aspect, it's fair to say that Barstow's story does provide readers with a legitimate look into the "military-industrial-media complex," as the headline promises. It's fascinating reading. But wouldn't it have been better if Barstow had been pushed to deliver readers damning evidence of a conflict? In the end, today's epic leaves the reader hungry for substantial proof of any real wrongdoing. He did nothing illegal, and perhaps nothing immoral -- and certainly nothing unexpected from a lifelong military hero who now earns his living from his very public position as a supporter of the American military effort. Nothing in his commentaries proves a case of corruption or conflict of interest.

Barstow, you haven't got it.

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